Melody’s note, printed on a post-it, read:
|VALID: FOREVER||PRICE: ONE (1) SOUL|
February 2nd, 2015
Dia rubbed her thumb and forefinger over the fading ink. Three months ago, Melody died twice. The first time, she came back for ten minutes, shouting for something to write on. The second time, she was gone for good. She left no last words—just the note. The only thing Dia could make sense of was the town penciled on the bottom: Centralia, Pennsylvania.
What remained of the borough hid between old-growth hardwoods and ambitious shrubbery. Houses stood half-torn down, supported by cinderblock mounds and brick buttresses that looked at first glance like rows of extra chimneys. The streets buckled in on themselves. An abandoned highway split from its twin and came to die in the woods. Smoke vented from cracks in the road, and carved-out hillsides glowed with coal embers.
The helicopter sweeps on Youtube were great, but they couldn’t beat a first-person view. Dia tucked Melody’s note back into her wallet and coughed. The breeze crept up her nose and dug into her brain, clenching her skull with stinging sulfur. Monoxide and methane stained the air. As if the probably-poisonous vapours weren’t enough, the ground rumbled every few minutes. What have I gotten myself into? Dia thought, pressing her sleeve to her mouth. A red sign guarded a patch of discoloured sedges:
WARNING – DANGER
UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE
WALKING IN THIS AREA COULD RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH
She adjusted her jacket—the one Melody got her—and hunched her shoulders against the wind. Melody loved that jacket on her. “Don’t you dare stop wearing that jacket after I die,” she’d said.
Dia laughed then. “You’re not gonna die. If you do, I’ll follow you to Hell and drag you back up.”
“Are you kidding? Dying is great.” Melody crossed her arms behind her head and fell backward onto the bed. “People bring you stuff. Have you seen how many flowers I have?”
Dia smiled at the flowers: gazanias, dahlias, magnolias… They beat back the hospital haze with a fury. Centralia could’ve done with some of Melody’s flowers.
Nose wrinkled, Dia pushed through the bushes and weeds. Desolation opened up beyond the threshold. The road meandered in crumbling pieces, split by defiant grasses carving through the blacktop. Dia made to step forward, but froze upon glancing down.
Giant letters and numbers, scrawled in chalk, wove along the edges of asphalt plates. Most of them were dates and names—”Davis and Layla, 10/13/12″, “Kitty W., July 17th”, et cetera—but one lorded over them all. Dia hopped the fissures and spun herself around to read it.
THE END IS NEAR
THE HOUR OF THE BEAST APPROACHES
The sulfuric miasma choked her senses again. Smoke rose in seeping curtains from the edges of the road, crawling into the air to meet the steely April sky. She coughed through a laugh. “Jesus.” Her echoed voice cackled back at her from the ruins. Jesus… Jesus… Jesus… The wind carried the ashes of her words over the forest. She popped her collar up and marched forward, only now noticing the broken church looming over the borough.
The heart of town bore fewer weeds than the arterial roads. Here, Dia saw the lonely halves of houses from the video clips, with their redbrick bones stretching like claws to the sky. Melody would’ve liked this, she thought. The two of them kept shelves full of dystopian fiction. Throughout college, they competed to see who could collect the most posters. Dia maintained that she won that contest, but thought it would be bad manners to mention it to Melody on her deathbed. She squinted and pulled out her phone. Any frame of Centralia would look good as a poster, or at least a screensaver.
The ground rumbled again, and the earth shook. A shriek peeped out of Dia’s mouth and bounced around the withered walls. The earth roiled for a moment, as if hungry, then quieted as quickly as it stirred. Her senses came back online and registered the cold and stink of brimstone all over again.
Jesus! “What?” Dia covered her mouth as she turned.
A bearded man, as old and hoarse as the town itself, clacked his cane against the asphalt. “This town isn’t for tourists, you know.” He clutched an upside-down cross hanging from his neck. “It’s dangerous.”
“Is it?” She slid her phone back into her pocket. Genius answer, Dia.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and stamped his cane again. “I don’t mean you any trouble. But people come here to take pictures, or film things, or write their names on the road, and they get hurt.” His voice lumbered out like the crumbling stone around him.
Dia smoothed her hair and stepped over. “Sorry. You scared me is all.”
He smiled. “Your cap’s on backwards,” he said, pointing at the Williamsport Crosscutters logo on her forehead.
“Huh?” She fingered the brim at the back of her head. “Oh.” She flipped it round and grinned. “My dad always said that, too.”
“Call me Pete.” He offered a handshake.
He sure doesn’t waste any words. “Nice to meet you.”
“You have a good reason to be in Centralia?”
The ground shook again. “Ah—no, not really,” she answered.
Pete’s eyebrows arched. Dia saw an owl in his features: plump, bald head; small, sharp nose; and eyes that she hadn’t seen blink a single time. “Then you’d better leave.” He hummed. “By the way, he’s not here.”
“Jesus. He’s not here.”
“Oh—” Dia forced a laugh. “Uh, okay.”
Pete’s face twisted from a wide-eyed owl to a scowling vulture. “It’s the other guy who lives here.”
Another bout of rumbling struck. Dia backpedalled. On her second step, a crack in the ground caught her foot. She flew into the dirt. Mud flared up into her teeth and stained her tongue with a mix of grass, gravel, and what she imagined coal tasted like.
Pete droned on, hovering above her. “You really need a good reason to be here.”
Dia slammed against the dirt and propelled herself up. Muck filled her fingernails. Pete’s gaze bore into her. She spat. “What do you mean by a good reason?” Her heartbeat filled her ears.
The old man knelt, bones cracking. His fingers closed around a clump of dirt. “Now hold on just a minute,” he said, wiping mud away from his hand to reveal Dia’s wallet.
“Hey!” She swatted toward him. He pivoted away.
“Here we go.” He plucked Melody’s note from the folds and tossed the wallet back. “Not very official. What is this, a post-it note?” He flattened out the creases. “Did you lose your ticket?”
Pete rapped his bony fingers on the note and cleared his throat. “Well, as makeshift as this looks, your numbers check out.” He handed Melody’s note back. “You’re awfully late, though. Three months. What took you so long?”
Dia kept her eyes on his. Sweat tickled the pads of her fingers. “Late?”
Pete tapped his cane. “It says on your ticket. February 2nd. It’s the middle of April. What took you so long?”
Dia took a glance at the road. I could run. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He raked in a deep sigh and rubbed his forehead. “Did nobody have the conversation with you?”
He ran a hand through what hair he had left. “All right, I’m sorry I scared you. I just thought you didn’t belong here at first.” He intoned a chuckle. “When I see people who don’t belong here, I like to mess with them a bit. Keeps me going in old age.”
Dia looked him over. There was no way he could outrun her. “Well—uh—” She swallowed. “Ah—of course I belong here.” What had Melody’s note gotten her into?
He nodded. “Lucky for you these tickets don’t expire.” He gestured toward the far end of the street, to the church. “The inspector might give you trouble about this whole ‘post-it’ situation, but your numbers are in order, so you should be fine.”
She stayed put. “My numbers?”
Pete rolled his eyes. “Your customer ID. Melody Jane, born August 6th, 1991. It’s on your ticket in plain writing.”
Dia scrambled for the note and pored over it. How did he know Melody’s name? And her birthday? She took a few more steps back. “I still don’t know what you’re talking about.”
His face crinkled into a smile. “It’s going to be okay. You’re just in denial.” He stretched out a palm. “Come on. I’ll show you where to go from here. Let’s hurry, though. The next train leaves in two minutes.”
“Train? What train? To where?”
Pete shrugged. “Hell.”